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My Lords, for the second Queen’s Speech running, same-sex marriage legislation is the Bill that dares not speak its name. I want to comment briefly on its absence from the Queen’s Speech because this is another example of a process which to date has been wholly unedifying. Debate and discussion have been curtailed and foreshortened at every turn, as I will illustrate.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for his powerful and impassioned speech, a great deal of which I agree with. I, too, want a fair, equal society. I, too, want to oppose discrimination in any form. I, too, believe that the other place is the senior Chamber and we must listen to it with respect. However, I am sure that the noble Lord did not wish to suggest that we have no role in scrutinising, challenging and opposing Bills that come before us if we feel it is right to do so. It is not my wish to put forward arguments against the Bill at this stage; I simply want to reflect on the process.
When the Prime Minister took office, he interested many of us when he outlined his plans for a big society. There is, of course, a great need for social cohesion built upon a strong economy and nourished by agreed common values and, in the case of our society, the Judaeo-Christian ethic, but, somehow, along the way the big society vision has been forgotten and in its place we find division and great distress, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter mentioned earlier—indeed, a “broken society”, to quote the Prime Minister once more. Of particular concern to many is the bewilderment caused by a law concerning same-sex marriages which will change the face of society and family with no mandate or even a proper debate.
Of particular concern at this point in the Bill’s passage is, for the first time, the way in which the proposals effectively institutionalise competing views of marriage in our society. Rather than promoting social cohesion, this will lead to greater social fragmentation. Far from ending the so-called battle over marriage, these proposals will formalise and exacerbate that battle. The Bill will lead to a scenario that is destructive for community, thereby necessitating further change in the future.
How did we get to this point? A commitment to legalising same-sex marriage was not in the manifesto of any major political party at the 2010 general election. The Government have not demonstrated at any point evidence that there was a great demand for such a change. The Government produced a so-called public consultation on the introduction of same-sex marriage but declared a timetable for the draft Bill and its implementation before publishing the results of the consultation. Their mind was made up. The consultation was never about whether same-sex marriage should be introduced but how. The Government had promised in the consultation that same-sex marriage would not take place in religious premises. In the draft Bill they did the opposite. The consultation cannot be described as a serious exercise in eliciting the views of the public.
Had the Government listened more and not engaged in a desperate bid to paint all the opponents of this Bill as elderly Christians, a strange breed of non-relevant dinosaurs, perhaps they would have started to address these issues and picked up the chorus of disapproval from those, for example, from our black and minority ethnic communities who have, for no apparent reason, been excluded from the legislative process. The Secretary of State was sent a letter by the leaders of Britain's so-called black churches, but I understand that she refused to see them. The committee in the other place failed to invite a single black person, Muslim, Sikh or Hindu to give evidence in person.
This Bill represents major constitutional change but was rushed through Second Reading in the House of Commons. The debate was time-limited and contributors to the debate were strictly time-limited in their speeches. I regret to say that the Government have pursued this agenda without paying attention to many voices calling for caution, not just from their back-benchers but from thousands of their grass-roots supporters. The local election results tell the story of a substantial section of the public who are extremely worried about the effect of a redefinition of marriage on family life and the well-being of children. It is not therefore surprising that many feel that they have been frogmarched to this point in time. What is happening will not lead to a strengthening of the notion of a big society but the opposite.
I recognise that there are good and sincere people on both sides of this debate and it is not my intention to question other people’s integrity, but I trust that when the Bill reaches this House, we will pause to consider the pace of change and the effect that it will have on the nation. Indeed, it is my hope that this Chamber, which has shown its independence on important issues in the past, will also demonstrate and talk about the dangers that this Bill represents, if it becomes law.